CPB gives $1 million to build and expand emergency communication services

By Dru Sefton

Five pubcasting stations are receiving a total of $1 million in grants from CPB to expand emergency alert and communications services.

CPB announced the grants today to WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y.; Maine Public Broadcasting Network; Vegas PBS in Nevada; WGBH in Boston; and Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, Minn. Each will work with community partners and other pubmedia entities to acquire or develop digital wireless technology to assist first responders, emergency-management agencies and the public during disasters.

Using pubmedia digital broadcasting technology, officials can send emergency information through text, audio and video. CPB is requiring participating stations to share what they learn with the entire pubcasting system to increase the initiative’s impact.

“This kind of partnership between a public broadcaster and public safety officials to serve citizens during crisis is an important use of the broadcast spectrum,” said Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in the announcement.

Two grant recipients will create new systems. WGBH will build a statewide emergency-communications network using its digital bandwidth and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) infrastructure. MEMA’s communications are limited to narrowband voice channels that are vulnerable to weather extremes and power outages. The new system will allow MEMA to transmit live briefings, maps, weather and traffic video and other emergency information. WGBH will partner with the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council, Metro Boston Homeland Security Region, the Northeast Homeland Security Regional Advisory Council and the U.S. Coast Guard.

MPBN will also create a new closed-circuit communications system using its digital TV bandwidth, allowing the Maine Emergency Management Agency to deliver emergency information to state police, commercial and noncommercial broadcasters and other news providers through audio, video, data files and real-time multimedia.

Two other stations are building on existing systems. WSKG is already connected to the Broome County Office of Emergency Management, allowing the station to receive and broadcast emergency messages. Other New York pubmedia stations will get videoconferencing and codec equipment, and Centralcast, the statewide joint master control, will transmit the messages. The station will develop protocols for pubcasting stations in conjunction with the New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

And in Nevada, the grant will expand services Vegas PBS already provides to the Clark County School District Police Department to include the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. The station will upgrade infrastructure and incorporate new software and electronics to accommodate data feeds such as helicopter, traffic and surveillance video. That data will be aggregated, encoded, encrypted and broadcast to first responders.

TPT will use its grant to develop programs to allow automatic translation of emergency messages into languages common to the region, such as Hmong, Spanish and Somali. Currently, emergency alerts go out only in English. TPT will work with several partners including Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the University of Minnesota and ECHO Minnesota, a nonprofit specializing in multilanguage health, safety, civic-engagement and emergency-readiness communication.

CPB’s board and management identified the need to expand emergency-alert capabilities earlier this year following several natural disasters, including Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. The PBS WARN (Warning Alert and Response Network) system, which establishes a redundant path for FEMA wireless emergency alert messages, launches next spring.

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